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Afghanistan's continued struggle
Posted: Friday, February 28, 2003

by Matthew Riemer, PINR

Afghanistan is currently seeking political legitimacy not only in the context of Central Asia but in the greater world as well. The administration of Hamid Karzai is faced with a series of obstacles towards that goal. Many from among the myriad ethnic groups, political organizations, and those with some kind of claim to Afghan leadership don't approve of the Karzai government and its host of Western educated Afghans. Vice President Haji Qadir was assassinated in July 2002 and there have been attempts on the life of Karzai, himself. Coalition forces continue to fight skirmishes throughout the country, and rocket attacks directed at the capital Kabul are frequent. Karzai has asked that peacekeeping troops expand their beats beyond Kabul to police a greater area, but so far, this has not happened. After being virtually extinguished, albeit for only a year, by the austere Taliban, opium production is experiencing a new high point. The country is also fractured by the varying amounts of power held by regional warlords, making the centralization of power extremely difficult.

The opium trade

According to a recent study released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) entitled "The Opium Economy in Afghanistan: An International Problem," Afghanistan remains the world's leading opium producer, despite the devastation caused by the United States' bombing campaign to oust the Taliban. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had followed the overthrow of the Taliban with the symbolic act of banning the production and trading of opiates early in 2002, but the industry still flourishes. It's important to note that in 2001 under a Taliban decree banning opium production, the amount produced fell from 3,200 tons to 185 tons: a dramatic reduction.

A U.N. press briefing announcing the release of the report on February 3 quoted the director of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa: "Afghanistan's opium production increased more than 15-fold in the 25 years since the Soviet intervention. By the year 2000, the country was the source of 70 percent of all the illicit opium produced in the world. The worldwide demand for opium was about 4,000 to 5,000 tons. Afghanistan produced an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 tons in the year 2000." The opium economy has "chained a poor rural population-farmers, landless labor, small traders, women and children-to the mercy of domestic warlords and international crime syndicates that continued to dominate several areas of the country."

Last October, when the study was completed, Costa called Afghanistan a "global challenge" and added that "the rebuilding of the country can only succeed if the global community -- from the U.S. and Canada to Europe and Japan, from Russia to neighboring Iran and Pakistan - continue to provide their support in a process of empowering the Afghan people in this new beginning."

The report suggests many ways to stem the drug trade: providing jobs to women and schooling for children, limiting the influence of the regional warlords, and the conversion of bazaars for opium traffic into legitimate modern markets. The report also offers the popular solution of helping farmers introduce alternative crops, but with nothing able to compete with the poppy for profitability, it's unlikely that such a move would work.

Warlordism and the ICC

For the past twenty-five years, Afghanistan has been a country dominated by regional powers with a concomitant lack of centralized power and a strong bureaucracy capable of expanding that power to the geographical fringes. This trend has not seen its demise with the fledgling government of Hamid Karzai but instead is one of the biggest challenges facing Karzai as he attempts to steer his country down the path of political legitimacy.

For example, Ismail Khan, a regional commander based in Herat who commands as many as 25,000 soldiers, refuses to disarm. Karzai wants to see him tried for war crimes.

A recent move by the Karzai administration may help with this challenge: Afghanistan recently became the 89th nation to join the International Criminal Court (ICC). Many in the international community are encouraged by this development as the various warlords and militias active within Afghanistan will know that they are now under the jurisdiction of the ICC. Obviously, whether such knowledge will actually deter them from committing war crimes is speculative, but the Associated Press quoted Human Rights Watch's John Sifton as saying, "This is a [sic] historic day for Afghanistan. For over two decades, perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan have enjoyed total impunity. On May 1, that impunity will formally end."

U.S. President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the agreement last May because he feared charges being brought against U.S. troops in the "war on terrorism" even though the Clinton administration had encouraged U.S. participation earlier. The U.S. also fears Afghanistan's participation with the ICC. Such fear may stem from the fact that the U.S. during the Afghan campaign supported and funded many who may appear before the court now that Afghanistan is a member. Though crimes committed before the participating country's entrance into the pact cannot be tried, the U.S. may still fear new investigations revealing information of U.S. involvement that the administration would rather not see go public.

Uzbek General Rashid Dostum is one of these individuals. The U.S. was allied with Dostum during the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, and now he's a prominent figure in the post-war political landscape. But he's also been accused of grave human rights violations by many international organizations and his reputation locally is of a brutal warrior who engages in torture.

Journalist Ahmed Rashid describes an encounter with Dostum in his book Taliban: "The first time I arrived at the fort to meet Dostum, there were bloodstains and pieces of flesh in the muddy courtyard. I innocently asked the guards if a goat had been slaughtered. They told me that an hour earlier, Dostum had punished a soldier for stealing. The man had been tied to the tracks of a Russian-made tank, which then drove around the courtyard crushing his body into mincemeat, as the garrison and Dostum watched."

Dostum's accused by Amnesty International of human rights abuses in fighting that took place in Kabul in 1994. Amnesty alleges that General Dostum and then Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar blockaded the city and would not allow for the passage of international food aid to residents, leading to many deaths. During that same period, there was widespread indiscriminate killing and rape by forces supposedly under the supervision of Dostum as well.

It is because of such stories that many are upset by the presence of Rashid Dostum in the leadership of Afghanistan at any level

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who fought the Soviets and is the leader of Hezb-i-Islami, is now thought to be banding with elements of both Taliban and al-Qaeda to form a resistance movement to any U.S. presence in Afghanistan period. This alignment represents the hard line Islamist stance to United States intervention, and may in the long run present the greatest challenge to the Karzai administration.

In an interview on January 28th with the U.N.'s Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Karzai remarked, "The area where we have not been able to make significant inroads was to provide the Afghan people a life free of armed gangs who are fighting each other in parts of the country. That's the only area I'm not happy about."

Where to next?

Therefore, Karzai is currently focusing on centralizing and strengthening the Afghan government. He'd like more peacekeeping troops deployed, covering an area that extends well beyond Kabul. He'd like to see the warlords trade in their arms for a political role in the country. And he wants to develop the new Afghan army -- the Afghan National Army (ANA) -- into a legitimate armed force capable of handling internal threats. He also wants, though seemingly impossible, to create some kind of Afghan identity -- though one short of a destructive nationalism -- to further bind Afghanistan. There's also a sense of diplomatic balance between the United States and Central Asia for Karzai: He wants to cooperate fully and enthusiastically with the United States and the United Nations reaping all the benefits he can from such relationships, but wants to be important and pivotal within his own region of Central Asia -- the two not always being the same thing.

The key to the whole conundrum in Afghanistan may be the country's artificial diversity resulting from the arbitrary meanderings of much of its national boundaries.

But perhaps this comment by the controversial General Rashid Dostum in an interview with sums up Afghanistan's difficulties most succinctly: "As I told Mr. Karzai and our friends in the American and British militaries, we are ready to do all we can. But it is not as simple as it sounds. For example, most of the fighters we and other commanders have are not all that young. Many of these men have been fighting all of their adult lives in a particular movement. Their whole life and their whole identity is formed by associating with that movement. Now, if we suddenly tell them to forget about their identity and their past life, it is not going to be easy. If you look at all the militia members in Afghanistan, you see that their attitudes, their age and their whole outlook is very dissimilar."

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an analysis-based publication that seeks to, as objectively as possible, provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. PINR seeks to inform rather than persuade. This report may be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast provided that any such reproduction identifies the original source, All comments should be directed to

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